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Works: Why Magic Sucks

The first essay in the series "Shattering Illusions"
Genii, June 1993

"Blackstone and Copperfield stink, but Jamy Ian Swiss is to die for." – Richard Kaufman, MAGIC Magazine

(Yes, he did write this, but no, I don't think he really meant it.)

Why Magic Sucks

I love magic. I have loved it passionately all my life, have invested twenty-two years as an amateur magician and survived another dozen since as a full time professional. I think it an art form possessing magnificent capacity and genuinely exceptional elements - elements that in fact set it apart from all other arts. But I love magic as a means more than as an end. I love what magic can be far more than I love what it is.

For almost as long as I can remember magicians have bemoaned the low status of magic on the food chain of the performance arts. As I quoted in my Introduction to Peter Samelson's Theatrical Close- Up in 1984, in 1911 Maskelyne and Devant lamented in Our Magic that "...due recognition of the artistic claims of magic and magicians can only be brought about by proving that those who practice magic are something more than common jugglers, on the one hand, or common mechanical tinkerers, on the other hand... This they can only do by treating (magic) as a true art - not merely as an embodiment of more or less intelligent skill." Little has changed in the past eighty years.

Why does magic continue to suffer its embarrassing standing? Why does the message of a radio commercial that proclaims theirs the "the magic show for people who hate magic shows" strike such a compelling chord with Penn & Teller's discerning and appreciative audience? If asked, many magicians insist that this condition is due to the existence of "so much bad magic out there." But this is nonsense. There has always been bad singing, bad music, bad dance, bad painting and sculpture - yet these performance and static arts continue to maintain their respected station, unthreatened by the presence of poor and incompetent practitioners.

What makes magic different?

Magic has failed to achieve artistic standing because it has failed to transcend its technique.

And what is that technique? The fundamental task of magic is that of fooling the audience. In fact, the most basic definition of magic might be this: to be a magician, one must fool the audience.

But the problem is that for far too long magicians have stopped at that sentence, and gone no further.

So keep reading.

When you fool the audience you indeed fulfill the essential mandate of your job. But you have in no way come even remotely close to completing the job - much less having done a job well.

There must - simply must - be some larger end in sight, or else the audience is merely fooled.

Merely fooled?

Yes, merely, for fooling the audience is, in and of itself no measure of greatness. A magician who has learned to fool the audience is little more than a musician who has mastered the scales, a painter who has learned his brushstrokes, an actor who has learned to remember his lines and not bump into the furniture. It is a beginning. But it is a necessary one. In no other field will an artist even be taken seriously if he has not achieved this most basic technical proficiency. Yet how many magicians have you seen that fail to achieve even this much?

Not only is it not difficult to achieve this feat, but in fact, people are fooled every day. What's more, it is outrageous to assume that this is often a pleasurable experience. Quite possibly the single most egregious myth that magicians have perpetrated on themselves (and, I might add, it is solely upon themselves), is that "it is fun to be fooled." Really? I don't think so. Was it fun to buy that new car only to discover it was a lemon? Was it fun to declare fidelity in a marriage vow, only to be cuckolded? Was it fun to vote for your choice for the highest political office in the land, only to learn that he subverted the Constitution that he swore to uphold, or had to flee from office in order to escape Congressional subpoena?

Gee, I don't think so.

In fact, not only is it not fun to be fooled, but it is one of the magician's first orders of business - immediately upon learning how to fool the audience - to find a way to make the experience palatable. Whether by deem of character, by means of psychological or theatrical ploy, something must be done to add a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of magic go down. It doesn't have to be sweet. Or even nice. It might be harsh, even menacing - good art often is. -But something must be offered to balance the audience's experience and make it profitable for them in human terms.

There not only can be, but indeed must be, much much more to magic than an elemental act of deception. Every art form possesses its most basic and essential ingredient, and just as a musician produces sounds with an instrument, a dancer moves upon a stage, and a painter makes marks upon a canvas, the magician is expected to fool his audience. If the magician repeatedly fails to do so, he may still be an entertainer, a performing artist, even an artist of merit. But he is not a magician.

I do not defend some constipated purist's approach that would prevent magic from expanding to incorporate other artistic techniques, such as music, movement, or comedy. But consider the type of work that has come to be known as "comedy magic." I make a clear distinction between comedy magic and its lowly imitator, magic as prop comedy. Outstanding magicians who today work in settings alongside stand-up comedians make it a habit of including a magical payoff in much of their work, in the tradition of men like Jay Marshall, Johnny Thompson, and other masters of their ilk (though to be sure there are few of comparable stature). Contemporary examples which come to mind would include Mac King, Steve Spill, Fielding West, Harry Anderson, and Mark Kornhauser. Consider Fielding's "Bob the Bird" routine, in which an item used by countless prop comic magicians for a quick laugh is in fact used to achieve a genuine magical effect -not to mention a huge laugh. This difference - between a gag, and a gaff - is exactly what I am talking about. But contrast this masterly approach with the work of those who merely use magic as a prop - a crutch if you will - without ever completing the fundamental achievement of a truly magical effect. This lowly breed, failing the ability to mark themselves as either competent magicians or accomplished comedians, combine the two in a mediocre stew and call it comedy magic. It is not. It is prop comedy in the name of magic. The audience laughs, but where is the triumph in that? A quick visit to the local comedy club will demonstrate how easily that goal can be attained. And even for those who might consider this a triumph of sorts, would it not be at least more honest to label their product as something other than - and indeed less than - what it pretends to be, for it is not magic.

In fact, each field of artistic endeavor must indeed operate from its most simple definition. That definition can, at times, be a terrible burden, a frustrating constraint. But it is also a liberating challenge and a singular opportunity - a path by which the artist may achieve something truly unique and powerful.

And indeed, that is just what every good artist does. The singer, the painter, the actor, must all first master their technique - the most fundamental requirements of their art - and then proceed beyond. They transcend the technique of their art in order to achieve something larger. Perhaps that "something" serves to communicate with their audience, to inform and to move their audience and thereby achieve a lasting impact. But the technique, the definition, is never considered an end. It is a means. It is a medium. It is the sound, the movement, the paint. But by itself, it is a medium without a message.

By contrast, magic has traditionally regarded the act of fooling its audience as an end. Having achieved that, the practitioner considers his job complete. He is done. Little wonder that the audience is left with a Chinese food effect: a fleeting sense of amusement and diversion, yet before long hungry again for something of moment to seize their attention and alter their life.

If magic is merely a means to an end - what is that end? The possibilities are truly as infinite and varied as the range of human intellect and emotion. It can be glorious or banal, mean-spirited or enlightening-,the depths of tragedy or the heights of humor. It may simply be the exploration and exposure of an interesting and unique character - an important opportunity to share in the human experience by gaining insight into another person's life and mind. The human condition is the very essence of good theater, and indeed good art. But my concern here lies in questions, not answers; the acknowledgement of magic's incompleteness, the recognition that something is missing. I want only for every magician to feel that gnawing hunger of the Chinese food effect before any audience ever has the chance to expedience it. It will then be for each magician to find a way to satiate that new appetite.

But absent some larger substantive goal, the audience is left watching trick after trick after trick, each time receiving this most dreary of messages loud and clear: See, I fooled you. See, I fooled you. See, I fooled you again.

And this is why most magic sucks. I accept that as a given, an a priori assumption that colors all of my thinking about magic. It is a caveat that will hover above and lurk between the lines of these pages in the year to come.

And so I love what magic occasionally is more than what it most often is presented as.

And I hate every self-styled conjuror who misinforms the public about what magic can be. I hate every neurotic social misfit that ever bought a sponge Ding-Dong or mangled a Double-Lift in an act of Magic Aversion Therapy.

What should we do to remedy the situation? Should we spend our lives as mimics, mindlessly recycling old saws and standard tricks without a moment's examination? Should we live awash in covetousness, as vicious thieves robbing the most precious creative fruits of those artists we envy? Should we devote ourselves to the containment of the paltry secrets of our art, as if the mechanics of a centuries-old card sleight were the moral equivalent of a state secret? Should we institutionalize mediocrity by way of our associations, avoiding honest evaluation and the pressure to achieve greatness, all in the name of good fellowship? Should we embroil ourselves in petty disputes, busily hacking at trees without a moment's glance toward the forest? Should we use our special skills as a bludgeon with which to beat down our victims, in order to compensate for our own personal inadequacies?

If the present state of affairs is any clue, then the answer is yes.

But I say - no.

And I will continue to say no in these pages for the next twelve months.

"I love peace, but I adore a riot." Thurgood Marshall

Jamy Ian Swiss
, June 1993

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